As local workers get hammered by an explosion in costs for housing and healthcare, they’re turning more and more to the nuclear option of negotiating tactics.
Going on strike.
Up until recently, labor strikes were fairly uncommon in Orange County.
But that’s been changing.
It comes amid a national resurgence in labor union organizing and worker strikes – with strikes in particular tripling nationwide year-over-year.
At UC Irvine alone, about 4,500 graduate student workers have been on strike for 17 days, demanding wage increases to be able to afford OC’s increasingly expensive housing costs.
Many of their professors are now supporting the strike by not teaching or grading students until the labor stoppage has ended.
Workers at one of America’s most recognizable brands have also been picketing.
At a Starbucks coffee shop just a couple blocks east of Disneyland, workers picketed on Nov. 17 as part of a national day of striking.
22 year-old Esmeralda Vazquez said she was protesting for collective bargaining rights and for Starbucks to officially sit down at the bargaining table and negotiate with workers like her.
It’s also about workplace safety, she said.
“We’re striking against management’s failure to protect female baristas against sexual harassment,” Vazquez said.
Starbucks’ press office didn’t return a voicemail and email seeking comment on the strike.
Christopher Duarte, vice president of the union working to organize local Starbucks workers, said the company had been extremely disrespectful to workers at the bargaining table
“At our first bargaining session, after introductions, they just got up and walked away,” he said of Starbucks’ representatives.
“That’s how disrespectful it’s been.”
Just a couple weeks earlier, OC’s public bus maintenance workers went on strike for four days, arguing for the same healthcare benefits that all other workers get at the Orange County Transportation Authority.
Southern California grocery workers also authorized a strike this spring, before reaching a new contract with management – which included the biggest pay raises in decades – and calling off the strike.
“We know that there’s a lot of workers who have to move out of Orange County in order to afford to live,” said Gloria Alvarado, executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation, a coalition of more than 97 unions in Orange County representing about 250,000 workers.
“Every time you have to commute for more than an hour to serve the community in Orange County…you’re spending money that should be going to your family.”
“It’s all about profit over people,” she said of the way employers approach worker pay.
“And that’s what we want to stop.”
Lucy Dunn, who for 16 years led Orange County’s chief advocacy group for large businesses, said employers and residents alike are getting hit hard by skyrocketing inflation and housing costs.
“The cost of housing is a huge issue. [California is] 3.5 million homes statewide in deficit,” said Dunn, who previously led the state’s housing department under then-Gov. Arnold Swarzenegger.
“Frankly…even with all the pressure to build more housing, we’re not even close to meeting [the extra demand from] jobs growth and population growth in Orange County,” she added.
“I would say I’m not surprised about more strikes.”
The increasing frequency of strikes in OC goes hand-in-hand with nationwide trends.
“With 8% inflation, you’ve got a lot of pressure on [workers] to try to figure out how to make ends meet,” said Judith Stepan-Norris, a retired sociology professor at the UC Irvine who studies labor unions.
American worker strikes – as a percentage of the workforce – hit their peak in the 1940s, before declining somewhat in the 50s and 60s, rising again slightly in the 70s and dramatically dropping off in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, added Stepan-Norris, who co-authored an upcoming book about union booms and busts in the U.S.
Now, there’s an ongoing uptick in unionization and striking.
The nation’s largest railroad workers’ unions have been preparing to go on strike in the coming weeks, after their employers declined to allow paid sick days.
But Congress and President Biden now plan to ban the strike, vowing to pass a law requiring the unions to accept a tentative agreement as it stands.
People do take on risks by unionizing or going on strike.
Workers lose out on wages when they’re on strike, which can take a while to recoup through higher future pay, Stepan-Norris noted.
“It’s something that really takes a sacrifice on the part of the workers,” she said.
There are laws against retaliation against people who are striking or union leaders by firing them. “But it happens all the time,” and the fines for companies are small, she added.
Starbucks has been permanently closing some locations where workers unionized, citing safety concerns.
And when workers go on strike, some employers in California – including the oil company Chevron – has been cutting off their health benefits. A new state law that takes effect next July is aimed at curbing that practice.
Elsewhere in the U.S., Amazon warehouse workers in Missouri walked out on Black Friday to protest for higher wages and a safer workplace.
Now, the nation’s largest railroad workers’ unions could be going on strike in the coming weeks, after negotiations fell apart once again.
Workers must be sensing there’s more to gain than lose by going on strike, said Stepan-Norris.
“Workers are more likely to strike when they see other workers striking and winning.”
Erika Taylor contributed reporting.